TFWF#43: The great sales conundrum.

Its been busy on the farm since the flood. Not only has there been lots on fencing to be done we have also changed our structure for feeding, sorting and weaning the grower pigs, in addition to this we have also had eight litters in two months and increased the breeding herd to 22 sows.

Whilst we have been busy many of you might have also noticed that we have been absent from the markets, the cafes and the restaurants. Our disappearance from the outside world is due to, what I shall now call, the great sales conundrum (or GSC), brought about by a lack of good free range pork producers and a plethora of supportive customers.

The GSC is basically an over demand of product and whilst I know I am lucky to be in that situation I really don’t like letting people down, turning down opportunities or being sporadic in supply. In order to explain my conundrum in more detail I thought I might outline all the potential sales channels that we have, each with their own pros and cons and then I thought it might be nice for you all to give me some advice and feedback, via a comment on here or on Facebook.

Farmers Markets.

When we started the business we always planned to attend farmers markets, we chose Fielding and Thorndon because they appeared to be authentic grower markets. Unfortunately as time went on we found ourselves competing with a butcher from Wellington in Fielding and a general retailer selling meat from the store in Hawkes Bay at the Thorndon market. Despite this I really enjoy the markets, I get to meet a great deal of lovely customers and characters, I get direct feedback and its a great opportunity to grow business opportunities. I have also been able to try lots of different cuts of meat to see what sells best and showcase the quality of the meat. On the downside the markets take three days of valuable time on the farm, a day to prepare and two days at the markets, and the success of the day is very dependant on the weather. Financially the markets work for us because we sell direct to our customers and the only extra costs are the market fees and the fuel.

Hill St Farmers Market (Wellington)

Hill St Farmers Market (Wellington)

Online Sales.

We had always planned to sell product via the website but we never had enough stock to attend the markets and sell online. The flood changed all that when we were unable to get to the markets and had a trailer full of meat to sell. We thought it best to trial online sales and managed to sell out in 49 mins. After that first trial we continued attending the markets and also selling small quantities of meat packs online. In August we took a break from sales to focus on the farm and came back in September with a greater focus on the online side of the business. The packs have been selling very well, I have enjoyed the customer feedback from all over the country and without any middle men we make a full margin (less the costs of sales). Obviously it takes a day to prepare and pack and we worry about the delivery arriving fresh but so far all has gone well and we have successfully delivered over 800 packets of bacon and sausages. I do miss getting to meet my customers face to face but the gain in time on the farm is, at this point, much needed.

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Restaurants and Cafes.

I love working with the owners and chefs of restaurant and cafes. These are the people that challenge the preparation of food and have the experience to truly grade the quality of our meat against others, it is their feedback that helps me to provide better quality product to everyone. I have been lucky to work with some excellent restaurants who have respected the way we grow our meat and promoted Woody’s to their customers. But, with only limited stocks at the moment, we have to manage our profitability and therefore we focus on our direct sales via the markets or online. This means that we are not able to supply the chefs on a regular enough basis, or large enough quality, and will often loose out on opportunities.  My goal is to be able to work regularly with a small number of restaurants around the country as soon as our stock levels rise.

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Speciality retailers.

Without a doubt the best way to promote your product and your brand is to have product in front of customers all the time. Unfortunately markets are only once a week and selling online relies on customers to find you, not the other way around. Putting product on the shelves in speciality stores who promote quality, niche products associates our brand with theirs and  encourages sales on a daily basis. The downside is again that retailers also need to make money, to pay their associated costs, and with limited stock we simply cannot afford to be on too many of those shelves. Additionally, whilst speciality retailers are very good at explaining to their customers about the provenance of the food they sell we, as the grower, do not get to talk direct to our customers, something that I think is very important.

Supermarkets.

In my previous life as a consumer electronics executive I spent a lot of time selling to supermarkets. Unfortunately supermarkets have all of the bad elements of speciality retailers with none of the good elements. They are not willing to take the time to talk about provenance, they do not fairly share profitability and over time they gradually reduce the value of your product in the consumers eyes, normally by heavy and unwarranted discounting. Any farmer who works with the supermarkets knows that the vanity of a high turnover of stock is not a replacement for the low profitability. Of course nationwide exposure and a single point of delivery is attractive to some, but not us.

Having broken down the pros and cons of all our potential retail outlets I am keen to hear what you think we should do, and who we should focus on. At the moment our limited stocks means that we can only afford to concentrate on the markets and online store but we hope to be able to continue supporting the restaurants, cafes and small speciality stores that we currently sell too. Moreover the chiller trailer is currently out of action so we have to concentrate on online sales until some work has been carried out on the trailer, when that is fixed we intend to attend one market a months and sell online twice a month. Maybe one day we will have greater exposure across the country.

TFWF#41: Part 3 – Money

I started Woody’s Free Range Farm with animal husbandry and welfare as my number one concern but after 18 months the reality of farming, just like any industry, is that money comes a very close second. Just like any startup business, we are very reliant on much bigger businesses who will only give us a fair go if we have a good cashflow position and pay our bills regularly, companies like abattoirs, butchers, feed mills and courrier companies.

For every person that dreams of giving up the corporate world and starting a small farm (or even worse a pig farm) there will be many more who tried it and failed when they realised it was eating away at savings and, rather than providing an outdoor lifestyle, it actually tied them to the farm every single day of the year.

Choosing farming as a new career is not an easy path to take and I believe that the key to making it work for me has been a mixture of stubbornness, competitiveness and being a control freak. However all of those ‘admirable’ qualities aside the main reason the farm is still going and the business improving is because of the savings that I had before we started the farm.

Farming is expensive. Aside from the cash flow issues of feeding animals for eight months before being able to take any produce to market there are also the capital costs of simply running a farm. We are lucky enough to have eighty acres of land but with it comes an obligation to look after the land, and with that comes costs. We have to pay the mortgage, rates, earthworks, farm structures, vehicles and water reticulation. All these expenses need to be paid and with only, at this stage, six pigs to sell a month we simply can’t rely on just that income alone.

Our largest ongoing cost is animal feed. In order to ensure the consistent quality of our meat we buy in a special feed formula for our grower pigs and another specific feed for the breeding herd. We do supplement this with used brewers grain which we collect for free from The Garage Project in Wellington but this is just a ‘filler feed’ and does not replace the professionally designed feed formula that the pigs get fed. Each and every day our pigs get fed at least 1kg of feed per animal per meal, and have two meals a day. On average a kilo of feed costs $0.83 per kg, this soon adds up depending on the number of pigs on the farm. At the moment we have 57 growers, 20 sows and 3 boars all eating 2kg of feed per day – thats a total of 160kg of feed or $132.80 per day.

On the other side of the coin our income has, up till now, almost exclusively come from the sale of meat at farmers markets and through restaurants and cafe’s. We are small and can’t meet demand but since the beginning of this year we have taken 32 pigs to the abattoir and sold 2403 packets of meat, this equates to 1239kg of pork including 5425 sausages and 233kg of bacon and ham. We have been lucky in that we have had no problems selling our products but our sales methods are also very time consuming and mean that I get to spend less time on the farm when I need to be at the markets or collecting the meat from the butchers.

Our prices are closely matched to retail prices. We are obviously more expensive that intensively reared meat but I have always tried to keep the prices at a level that most people can afford, if only for a special event. Our bacon is often cheaper that the Free Farmed versions for sale in the supermarket and always cheaper than the products available in high end stores such as Moore Wilson and Commonsence Organics, this is because we are the producer and there are no middle men or retail margins to be paid. Our goal is to be able to supply you with excellent meat products are reasonable prices, and by making a purchase you are 100% supporting us the growers.

Despite all this the reality is that we are currently not growing enough pigs to make enough money to run the business in the black. We simply need to breed more pigs and with this will bring the economies of scale that will make the farm a viable business. I write this blog not to complain or to plead poverty but rather to ensure that anyone with an interest in a similar lifestyle understands that it will take time and during that time you will need savings, a great deal of will power and probably most important…a very supportive partner.

TFWF#41: Part 2 – Sex

In the second part of this farm update I focus on sex. Not the type of sex that gets the heart beating and the mind racing but the type of sex that makes the running of a farm completely dependant upon spreadsheets and calendars.

I have mentioned the maths before but to reiterate a pig comes into heat every 21 days. Once pregnant the gestation is 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. After the farrowing occurs the piglets spend 8 weeks with their mother, suckling from her milk and eventually some creep feeding of the grains that the sows eat. Finally, after the 8 weeks, they are collected up and transferred to the grower paddocks where they will live for another five to six months.

Well thats the theory, what about the practice, and more specifically how do we get them pregnant and how do we know they are pregnant. Here on the farm we use natural methods for getting the sows pregnant, better known as Hugh and Gordon. On larger farms they prefer to use artificial insemination as this ensure the sows don’t get hurt by the boar and they can be more certain of the date of impregnation, however we have the space and the time to focus on natural breeding. The sows are put to the boar for a period of 25 days, this ensures the sows will be on heat at least once and normally twice. After this we cycle the sows and move them out to be replaced by the next lot. Sometimes we don’t have another sow to put in with the boars so to ensure the boars don’t get lonely the sows are left in the paddocks for a longer time.

Gordon and his girls

Gordon (at the back getting a scratch) with his girls.

Despite giving the sows at least 25 days with the boars it is still important to be able to tell when the pig comes on heat. There are normally physical signs to help to identify this and most pig farmers will also tell you that if you push the sow from behind and she refuses to move then she is very likely to be on heat. The problem with both of these methods is that they are open to interpretation and can sometimes be unreliable. Unfortunately the cost of an ultrasound machine is simply too much for us to buy so we have to use the old methods of checking for signs of heat and being patient. In most cases I have been lucky and the pigs have all been pregnant first time but as we get busier its more difficult to leave the sows with the boars for longer and not all sows come on heat in the same way, making it difficult to know if they are pregnant or not.

Recently we have had a few failed attempts and this can have a real effect on business plans because we are suddenly ten pigs down on expectations. The first sow to let us down was Martha. Martha is a very Large Black who came as a package deal with two registered rare breed Berkshires, unfortunately, after living with a boar for months, she simply did not come on heat and could not get pregnant. I had two options but given the complications of slaughtering a 250kg sow, the abattoir will not take pigs over 80kg and I cannot sell the meat if we home kill her, she has escaped culling and has become our companion sow who will keep any lonely boar company whilst they are not in service.

Martha, the Large Black  companion pig.

Martha, the Large Black companion pig.

The second sow to fail to get pregnant was more of a surprise to me, she is a registered Berkshire and had originally arrived on the farm already in litter, she was a good mum with 11 piglets but second time around she failed to come on heat and I suspect it was because of a hip/leg injury making her unsuitable for mating. Jennifer is a typical example of an untypical pig. she is difficult to tell when on heat, there are very little outward signs and she is so stubborn she will refuse, when pushed, to move if on heat or not. I waited with in trepidation and baited breath as the 15th May approached and passed, it was obvious that she was not pregnant but being a big pig I still had some hope that she was simply not showing. However its now 20 days after her litter was due and whilst she has proven to be a great companion to Ruth, who had a litter at the beginning of May, she will soon be put back to the boar and I will be watching very closely this time. Its a sad fact of life on the farm that all the animals on the farm need to provide a return, we simply cannot afford to become a rescue home to old animals which continue to cost us $2 per day in feed. Let us all keep our fingers crossed that Jennifer delivers us a litter soon.

After 18 months on the farm I have learnt a lot about pigs but I still need to become better at recognising the pigs heat cycles, planning the mating and ensuring the pigs are pregnant after being moved out from the boars. Its all part of the learning experience and I have quickly learnt, to my detriment, that planning the breeding is the most important part of the business because when I get it wrong it results in a shortage of stock to sell eight months down the line. This is actually the biggest difference between my old career in Consumer Electronics and my new career as a farmer, whereas I used to be able to quickly increase supply by buying more products I now have to plan eights months in advance to meet my customers demands, and if I get it wrong we have nothing to sell.

TFWF#40: What do you call a Farmer’s Market without Farmers?

As many of you will know I have always tried, and enjoyed, being very transparent about the farm and the business. The whole reason for writing the blog was to let my readers follow me on my journey and experience the highs and lows of a start-up business, choosing a niche market and using social media to help modernise the ageing New Zealand Farming community.

We have always had a singular mission to produce high quality pork and to raise happy pigs in an ethical way. Our pigs require more time and care to raise than those in intensive farming practices, such as free farming and those with sow stalls. We raise fewer pigs at a slower rate than intensive farms and this means our pork costs more, but tastes much better. We rely on the discernment, interest in provenance and knowledge of our consumers to create demand for ethically-raised, better tasting pork.

To achieve our goal we had to build our stocks by searching the country for suitable pigs and starting a breeding program. It is not possible to buy an existing herd of pigs from an intensive farm and free range them because they have been ‘genetically modified’ to suit their environment, instead we chose heritage breed black pigs more suited to outdoors. What this means is that we have less meat product and we therefore have to pick where we sell our meat very carefully to ensure our customers understand and appreciate our story. As of today we have 97 pigs on the farm, some are on the breeding herd, some are piglets and some are coming up to slaughter weight. I cannot simply buy in pigs or meat products when I have a shortage of stock and therefore sometimes I simply do not have anything to sell and reluctantly have to let down customers.

These are the challenges of my business and I very much rely on my carefully chosen sales locations to ensure the business can continue. In Wellington I have chosen to sell at and work with, the Hill St Farmers Market (soon to be called the Thorndon Farmers Market), because they are a small community based market with lots of regulars and very focused stall holders.

Hill St Farmers Market (Wellington)

Hill St Farmers Market (Wellington)

The atmosphere is great on a Saturday morning and regardless of the weather I can always rely on my excellent customers to pop along and say hello. I have been so taken by the Thorndon market that when they asked for stall holders to become trustee’s and help with the running of the market I was keen to join in. One major challenge for The Thorndon Farmers Market is that the location does not easily allow for the market to meet the terms of an Authentic Farmers Market, as governed by the Farmers Market NZ organisation. In respect for this authentication and the organisation the Thorndon market has opted not to become a member, yet.

In contrast my other market of choice, Feilding Farmers Market, is a proud member of the Farmers Market NZ organisation and has, for the last three years, been voted best authentic farmers market, last winning the award in 2014. At Feilding I am surrounded by people who bake, cook, create, squeeze, grow or produce their own food. Its definitely an eclectic bunch of people but full of like minded business owners who strive to produce a better product and impart their knowledge to their customers. In an environment like this both the sellers and the customers know that the stall holders are authentic and the competition is on a level playing field. Or so I thought.

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On the 13th February I, like most regular stall holders, arrived early at the market. The normal hours are 9am till 2:30pm but I like to arrive at 8am as often my customers want to get their shopping done before the working day starts. At 9am a large mobile butchery van arrived from Waikanae Butchery, a retailer based on the Kapiti Coast. Given that a butcher is by no means a farmer and that they are able to sell wholesale meat products everyday of the week in their retail store I was sure that this was a mistake and approached the market manager. I was initially told that they had not seen the paperwork and therefore had not been approved but, as they had arrived, they would be allowed to trade for the day.

To make my point very clear, I am not opposed to competition. I have spent most of my life working in Consumer Electronics which is one of the most competitive industries in the world. Competition is healthy, creates a better products and is good for the producer and the consumer. However, unfair competition is not healthy, it does not care about the customer or the product and often destroys the person or producer who was striving to improve the product in the first place.

Let me explain, my daily routine is to feed the pigs, I ensure they are healthy, have water, wallows and plenty of space. On a thursday I personally load the pigs and drive to Wanganui to the abattoir. Because of the rules dictated by the Ministry of Primary Industries I have to employ a butcher to cut the meat and produce the sausages, we work together and I manage him to ensure my product is treated well and no fillers are used. I pick up the finished product, label it and take it to the market. I am involved in every aspect of the production of my products, including the finance, marketing, social media and legislation. A retailer like Waikanae Butchery does not have to worry about the animals, their welfare or any part of the farming. Instead they are able to focus on on-selling meat products each and every day. When they run out of meat they buy more, they are not constrained by breeding cycles because they rely on wholesalers. They are not involved in the upbringing of the animals and therefore are not able to vouch for their quality of life, even if they can tell you the farm it came from. (In the case of pork, they buy from Murrellen Pork in Canterbury and the farm is actually Free Farmed, not Free Range (click here to read about the difference) and there are no rules to govern the number of grower pigs kept indoors.)

Feilding Farmers Market is run by a management company. To ensure our thoughts were clear another stallholder called Venison Bouche and Woody’s decided to make formal complaints about the arrival of Waikanae Butchery based on the 3 Golden Rules for Farmers’ Markets and their stallholders:

(1)    A Farmers’ Market is a food market (e.g. no arts, craft, bric-a-brac) with some exceptions for plants and flowers.
(2)    This food is produced within a defined local area (each market can define their local region)
(3)    The vendor must be directly involved in the growing or production process of the food (e.g. no middle men, on-sellers, wholesalers, retailers, etc… )

However it quickly became apparent that I had not initially been told the truth and actually “(FFM) have received and pre-approved the application from Waikanae ButcheryI” There explanation on how they met the criteria and had been approved was that “stallholders must produce or add value to locally grown primary produce. ‘Adding value’ could be as simple as roasting, preparing, cutting and packing produce. Local is a grey area and we have discretion by a case by case basis to go outside the set geographical boundary.” In simple terms the product can be deemed local even if it is from Canterbury and the stall holder would be deemed to be adding value if they simply pack the product. Under these terms any supermarket in the area would be able to sell most products if they can list on the packaging where the produce came from and prove that they have packed the product.

Wishing to take the matter to the committee for the Farmers Market, who had a meeting on Friday 20th, I asked the manager to provide the details of the stall holders on the committee but was told that this information was confidential and that my concerns would be passed to the Chair. The following Venison Bouche and I were sent an email to say that Waikanae Butchery presented to the committee and that their promises to work with the management team were accepted and they had been approved. Unfortunately I was not invited to present my opinion and with a one sided argument is was clear that they would be allowed to attend the market. As part of their application Waikanae Butchery offered to not sell Venison and ‘work with’ Woody’s Farm on the pork products that they sell, however as I said at the start of this blog my issue was not about competition but about the morals of a farmers market. As a result of the decision Venison Bouche have already pulled out of the market (you can buy online from them by clicking here) and I am hoping they will join us at Thorndon Market one day.

So what will Woody’s Farm do? Personally I enjoying attending the farmers market and Feilding market is about 40% of our income. As we build the business we need this income to keep paying for the pig feed, which currently costs about $2000 per month. It is indeed sad that Feilding is no longer an authentic farmers market and given that I was threatened “that the Market rules [state] Stallholders must channel all concerns thru the Market Management Team…”. perhaps the decision will be out of my hands. However I will be talking to my customers to see their point of view and I hope that you will help to support me. We have also started to sell through The Daly Larder on Fergusson Street so consumers will be able to get Woody’s Farm product almost any day of the week.

It is a very difficult path I have taken in setting up a free range pig farm and somedays it can seem fruitless, with unexpected challenges, but we are nere to stay and I look forward to working with all my customers in the future, where ever you are.

TFWF#39: a look back at 2014

We dont always have the time to look back at our lives, and even if we do have the time we often don’t have the inclination. However as its the end of our first year farming I thought I should look back and see what, if anything, I have achieved.

Of course its easy to say that in a year when achievements have been coming from every direction, a new country, a career change, a marriage, a baby and so on (not all of that happened in 2014 but most of it did). The problem is that it has been a frantic whirlwind of events and activity and I am running the risk of not appreciating the memories and learnings.

Its been just over a year since we moved to the farm and after a short time as bare land owners we received our first livestock on the 11th December 2014. The nine piglets from Wanganui did us well and got us through the first few farmers markets and indeed one lucky Sow (now named Ruth, after Ruth Pretty the chef) became the first pig to be mated and have a litter on the farm.

Me inspecting the herd on day one.

Me inspecting the herd on day one.

When I look back at the pictures of me surrounded by those motley coloured pigs, pink buckets in hand and a small pile of feed bags I am amazed by the growth that has happened. If we just look at the numbers on the 11th December 2013 we had a total of nine piglets on the farm, as of today, 11th January 2015, we now have a herd consisting of:

  • 3 Boars
  • 8 Sows
  • 7 Gilts (young sows)
  • 40 Growers
  • 34 Piglets

The infrastructure in December 2014 was basically two large fields with perimeter fencing only and one small transit paddock. A year on and we have 18 four line electric fenced paddocks with detailed maps of the farm in order to ensure the pigs are tracked and accounted for, the water pipes are easy to find and the electric fence on/off switches are everywhere. Not only has it been a great deal of hard work and time it has also cost a great deal of money, the steel fence posts are $7 each and I would estimate we have used at least 200 posts alone, not to mention the gates, the gate posts, the wire (thousands of meters), the insulators and the tools required to do all this work.

The breeding herd paddock after 1 year of farming

A panoramic photo of the breeding herd paddock after 1 year of farming. At roughly 12 acres the herd have about 1 acre per paddock and normally house two Sows per paddock

After a few months of breeding herd preparations and feeding the ‘bought in’ growers we were greeted by a barrage of piglets in May, starting with Paula on the 1st May, then Marigold, then Jennifer and finally Clarissa squeezing into the month on the 31st May. The following month the month important of our litters was born, our first son, Fred. The numbers on the farm were building quickly.

That same month was our first time at the Farmers Markets. My fear of meeting customers and selling on the street was eclipsed by my fear of driving, parking and reversing with a chiller trailer attached. I had never towed a trailer before and had never been to either of the markets to scope out the trailer driving skills needed. It seems like such a funny thing to have been worried so about now that I look back, but at the time it kept me awake at night.

Our first market day. Both Claire and I manning the stand

Our first market day. Both Claire and I manning the stand

The markets went well. I enjoyed them on that first day and I still enjoy them just as much after neary a year. I like meeting the people that eat and enjoy our meat and I also like to be able to talk about our farm and why we do what we do. The markets were also our greatest marketing venues, we met restaurant owners, chefs, foodies, blog writers and eventually in the middle of the year a producer from the iconic TVNZ Country Calendar.

As the year went on I scoured the country looking for breeding stock. We had pigs arrive on the farm from Gore, Masterton, Featherston, Feilding, Levin and the Hawkes Bay. By the time the Country Calendar cameras arrived we had become a fully fledged (but still small scale) pig farm. The show explored our reasons for the farm, our plans for the future and ourselves. It was a most enjoyable experience.

Feeding pigs brewers grain whilst standing on the back of a ute with a camera crew.

Feeding pigs brewers grain whilst standing on the back of a ute with a camera crew, just another day…

As the year came to a close the focus switched entirely to the production and supply of the Christmas hams. With such a large amount of produce being sold in one month it very quickly became apparent that the Christmas hams are actually the make or break of a pig farmer and no mistakes could be made. Not wanting to let anyone down we launched the sale of hams on our website, pay a deposit and secure your ham. Within just two days 80% of our hams were sold. What followed was a frantic plethora of spreadsheets with names and collection points, final prices and preferences for sizes. It was our first year and we had a lot to organise and learn. We bought boxes, labels, sticker and bags and I spent a great deal of time trying to get it 100%. Of course I didn’t manage to achieve 100% satisfaction but we were pretty close and we learnt from our mistakes, bring on next year.

Twenty Fourteen was a year of arrivals, markets, deaths, piglets, births, trips to the abattoir, fencing, water reticulation, weddings, family, Woody catching his first rat, Fred eating his first meal, damaging cars, fixing cars, floods, cameras, building houses, meeting customers and much, much more.

I wonder what Twenty Fifteen will bring?

TFWF#36: In which we eat bacon.

The goal of Woody’s Free Range farm is to be transparent. I am not a believer of false promises nor do I trust a business that does not use its own products. Because of this I have always been integral in preparing and tasting every product you eat with the Woody’s brand on it.

However I have never specifically tested our products again the others in the market, until now. Obviously I have been eating bacon from different suppliers and brands all my life (except for the short, obligatory, vegetarian stint when I was a student). I have eaten bacon all around the world (tip: don’t eat bacon in China) and as such I would not say I am an expert but I do think I know a little about the meat.

Over the last few months, since we started to sell our product, I have had a number of comments from customers about our meat. Overwhelmingly the comments about our bacon have been excellent, most say its like bacon used to be (more meaty), but some have said it was a little salty or a little fatty and so I decided to find out how we stack up against the competition.

A week ago we bought two lots of bacon from Countdown to compare to our own, one is a top of the range Free Farmed bacon and the other a top of the range Supermarket, intensively farmed, own brand bacon:

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Brand Product Price ($) Pack size (g) Price per kg Notes
Freedom Farms Eye Bacon, Smoked Rindless $9.50 250 $38.00 Free Farmed
Countdown Signature Middle Bacon $5.99 400 $14.98 Intensive Farmed
Woody’s Free Range Farm Middle Bacon (Berkshire) $9.66 284 $34.01 100% Free Range

Note: The Freedom Farms bacon was on special at $9.50 with normal price $11.29 ($45.16per kg)

The plan of the test was not to grade the bacon from best to worst (afterall you could hardly expect me to be unbiased could you) but it is rather to simply show you our findings in photos and a few descriptive words.

The first thing we did was take a slice of each bacon and lay it on a grill pan;

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We immediately noticed a few things that are apparent in the photo. Firstly our slice (left) had more fat, this is for a number of reasons, firstly free range pigs will have more fat and this was a winter pig that puts on fat and grows slowly but was also dryer and much more meaty and non see-through. The middle slice (Free Farmed) had the fat trimmed off and was wet and much thinner (you can see through it). Finally the intensive bacon (right) was again very wet (even had some odd jelly on it) and was again very see through.

We cooked all the bacon in two different ways, on the grill and in the pan so that we could cook them all at the same time and also measure the fat that came out.

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During pan cooking the Woodys bacon had the most fat but this allowed the bacon to gain crispiness during the cooking. The free farmed and intensively farmed bacon both had a brown liquid seep out during cooking and burn on the pan, this hindered the bacon from crisping up and started to burn instead. They both also had white foam appear on top of the meat, this solidified after cooking had finished and is due to the high water content of the meat. Next we grilled the bacon, which helps to separate the fat from the meat and I took close up pictures:

I am hoping that the above pictures allow you to see the clear differences between the different type of meats before and after cooking, look at the colour, the crispiness and even the size difference after cooking. The thickness of the bacon was a major contributor to the texture after cooking. The thinner meats were chewy and like cardboard whereas the Woody’s bacon was meaty and softer to chew.

Once again I realise that this is not a scientific experiment nor is it objective but I do hope that the photos let you get a bit of a feeling for the differences between the meats. I have deliberately not spoken about the taste because this would be too subjective.

The experiment also helped me to understand more about the fat in our meat, and whilst it helps with the cooking and tastes great I will be focused on trying to reduce the fat in our pigs as the farm continues to grow. The bacon we used was from a smaller breed, the Berkshire, and would therefore have more fat than our other breed, the Large Black. It was also a winter growing pig which is a slower grower and puts on more fat. Of course we could trim the fat off our bacon but it affects the flavour so I have decided to poll our customers to see if they want trimmed bacon or full fat?

Hopefully this is of interest to some of you and we will be back to normal farming talk in the next Tales from Woody’s Farm. If you do buy some of our bacon and you have some feedback (good or bad) please feel free to review us at Woodysfreerangefarm on facebook, comment on this blog or send us an email at info@woodysfarm.co.nz.

 

 

TFWF#33: where I get interviewed and the pigs learn about electricity

Every week on the farm I have a number of work goals to achieve. Of course daily chores like feeding, pumping the water, testing the fences and checking the health of the pigs, all have to be done, but because we are still setting up the farm I also have a large amount of structural and livestock management projects to attend too.

This week/month the key goal is to wean the piglets, move the Sows from the rooted up land to grassy paddocks and introduce the gilts to the boars. Starting with Paula and Marigold, the Large Black sows who have clearly had enough of their 17 children, I have fenced off another section of the breeding paddock with four strand electric wire fencing and built another farrowing house.

pig, hut

One of the farrowing huts. Measures 2.4m x 2.4m, has no floor, it fitted with straw and pallet walls (which provide insulation).

Weaning piglets is something that I have not had to do yet so I can only rely on what I have read to find the best way. The Sows (mothers) are being literally drained by the piglets and they need to be moved asap to ensure all the pigs (mother and children) are healthy. The plan is to firstly move the sows into their new paddock and then construct a small pallet feeding ‘room’ that I can feed the piglets in, close the door and lift them into the ute (to transfer them to the grower paddock.) Having set up the paddock for the mothers I then needed to build a new Ark for the piglets in the grower paddock. Followers of my blog from the start will have already seen the Ark’s that I built months ago and by now I am pretty good at building stuff so I set to work.

The first job was to buy wood and having found my favourite timber merchant (Rangitikei Timber) I bought over $1000 worth of wood. Then I bought a mitre saw and with the help of a few half pallets and an old kitchen cupboard I built my first workbench.

With this in place I enlisted Reuben to help me cut the 4.8m lengths of wood in order to construct Ark3 (so named because it is the third Arc I have built). The Ark took about 4 hours, even with some major modification to the build in order to account for the roofing steel being too short (my fault).

IMG_2369

Ark3 – the latest addition to pig town.

Having completed all the works required for the big move all I need to do now is to move the pigs. Given that this is the hardest part of pig farming I managed to convince myself that I was too busy this week and left if for a another week. That said I will be immensely relieved when all the movements are complete.

One of the related issues to the piglets growing up is that they totally destroy the paddock and therefore the ground needs to be rested. Unlike the big ruts that the sows make the piglets just soften the top few cm of soil and in particular they like to dig around the boundary. As they create little waves of soft soil they gradually push it towards the electric fence line and once on the fence it earths and reduces the power of the shock throughout the whole farm. This week I had not got around to walking the perimeter to check for soil on the wire and Thursday afternoon I paid the price for not making sure the electricity was on.

As I went around to feed the pigs I noticed Hugh and Ruth (who live in a paddock that has an outer perimeter fence adjoining the DOC forest) were missing, thinking they would be in their hut I slowly made my way to their paddock, they were not in the hut. Panic took over me as I know that any escape outside the farm puts the animals at risk of being hunted (I live in fear of pig hunters thinking they have hit the jackpot and have since installed cameras and signs around the whole farm), I ran into the paddock and the far fence line.

I really didn’t have to go far because there, just behind an old 7 wire fence line, was Hugh and Ruth looking me straight in the face (with a sheepish look in their eyes). My heart stopped, how on earth did they get there, how would I convince them to come back and how would they get through the fence!

Now, if this was a Stephen King novel or a suspense thriller of some kind then the story is about to get very tense, the reality is a lot less interesting. Ruth spotted the green bucket I was carrying and like a Bambi version of a 100kg pig she launched herself through the fence and bounded towards me, ears flying in the wind. Hugh, a little more aloof, looked at Ruth and realised he was about to miss out on dinner and literally rammed the fence, lifting a section about 5 m long, and bounded over to the bucket.

That night I hastily put up a single strand of electric tape around the fence line and went to bed. The next morning they were still in the paddock and I set off to Feilding farmers market knowing that I would be out in the dark that night making sure that electric tape was working, secure and powerful.

This week I continued my marketing blitz and general climb up the ladder of fame with an at home interview with the Otaki Mail. Vivienne came round to see me and ask the tough questions, actually they weren’t too tough and she was a lovely lady. We chatted for a bit and then I took her for a tour of the farm. After a few cheesy photos of me with the pigs we returned to the house and the interview was over. I hope to be able to share it with you next blog.

This weeks ‘farm school detention’ comes in the form of a very tired piece of driving and all the blame is squarely placed on Fred. Having had a few late night and early morning I realised that I was starting to make a few mistakes. I had accidentally left the water running twice and drained the storage container (which causes a air blockage and silt build up), I was constantly forgetting things on the opposite side of the river and the worst was to come one very chilly morning.

As I was feeding the pigs in the breeder paddock, silhouetted by the snow capped Tararua range, I decided to take a short cut through one of the paddocks. The paddock was resting and so with no pigs in residence the gates were open. I had driven through this gate many times and at 2.44m wide it is a little wider than the car, not a problem for a careful driver. But this morning I was not careful, I was tired and as I took the corner too early I heard a terrible scraping noise as the gate post and the car met. Getting out the car, almost in a stupor, I was relieved to see that rather than the paintwork being destroyed all the way down the side of the car I had actually only just cracked, smashed and pulled off the plastic running board. Maybe not the $1000’s worth of damage I initially thought, but still I reckon Fred owes me a couple of hundred bucks.

And finally, before I go to bed, I would just like to thank all the customers that I met at Feilding and Hill St (Thorndon) last week. I love seeing the regulars and having a chat but I also like meeting new people and talking about what I do and why. Please keep coming, please keep telling me what you think about our products and most of all please say hello, even if you don’t need any delicious bacon, sausages or pork that week. THANK YOU!